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Loving the Little Emperor

The ubiquitous only child has become the focus of Chinese parents' indulgence and high hopes. It's affecting the economy -- and society.

August 02, 2003|Evelyn Iritani | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Yide has an entertainment collection rivaling that of any American teenager, including copies of "Matrix Reloaded" and Madonna's "American Life" CD. He loves "The Simpsons" and has opinions on a surprising range of topics, from restaurant ambience to love.

A fan of Hollywood trivia, an avid reader of the "Harry Potter" series and Taiwanese comic books and an aficionado of Italian food, Yide is a marketer's dream. And he's just 8 years old.

Yide -- who shares a spacious Beijing penthouse with his parents, Li Guijun and Chang Qing, both 39 -- belongs to a special group of consumers, the "little emperors and empresses" who are the legacy of the one family, one child population-control program launched by China in 1979.

Although these children range in age from infants to young adults, they share one characteristic: They are usually the sole focus of two doting parents and four grandparents, the so-called "one mouth, six pockets" family. That has given them buying clout that extends far beyond what might be expected in a country where the per-capita gross domestic product hovers at $900.

Raised during a period of dramatic economic growth, these only children are knowledgeable consumers of Hollywood movies and enjoy Taiwanese pop tunes and the latest Hong Kong fashions. Even the children of factory workers and domestic helpers are being sent to after-school classes and study-abroad programs, reflecting Chinese society's emphasis on education.

Buoyed by their families' support, these youths are parlaying university degrees into well-paying jobs as engineers, entrepreneurs and attorneys. Yao Ming, the 7-foot-4-inch Houston Rockets star, is one of China's best-known single children.

But being the center of the familial universe carries a price. Sociologists worry that this generation is overprotected and spoiled. They fear that China's embrace of capitalism has materially enriched the lives of young people but left a moral void that could contribute to social problems such as drug abuse and drinking.

In an article on the single-child phenomenon, Wu Ruijun, a staff member of the Population Study Institute at East China Normal University, laments that "parents are focusing on the intellectual investment and ignoring the education of morality, which would cause unbalanced development of the child."

But China's one-child policy is credited with putting the brakes on a population that at 1.3 billion ranks as the world's largest. The biggest impact has been in the cities, because exceptions to the restriction were granted to rural families who needed an extra pair of hands to till the land.

Over the last decade, the average family size in China has dropped from 3.96 in 1990 to 3.44, according to the government. Twenty-two percent of families in the country and 62% of families in Beijing have just one child, according to 1997 figures from China's National Statistics Bureau, the latest data available. Some wealthier couples are choosing to have more than one child and pay the penalty, which varies depending on the locality. It can range from a few hundred dollars to several times the family's annual income.

A Singular Investment

Chinese parents and grandparents, most of whom came of age during the impoverished days of Mao Tse-tung's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, boast one of the highest savings rates in the world. But the heavens are the limit when it comes to spending on their children.

"The mind-set here is: I'm investing in the next generation," explained Christopher Mumford, chief operating officer of Yaolan.com, China's largest parenting-themed Web site. He said Yaolan's 550,000 members spend an average of $250 a month on child-related purchases, including nutritional products, educational toys and child-rearing literature sold by his firm's Babycare company. Often, families spend more than half of their monthly earnings on their children, according to the government media.

"Every child is a first-time child here, so there is a tremendous amount of anxiety" related to child rearing, Mumford explained, pointing out that 22 million babies are born in China annually. That's like adding a country the size of Australia to the world each year.

Whether they are pitching premium ice cream or cars, companies eagerly court single-child families as they work their way from the cradle to the condominium. This market is particularly attractive to foreign firms, which generally sell higher-priced goods.

California almond growers are trying to persuade bakers to use more nuts when decorating the elaborate cakes they create for birthday parties. The U.S. Dairy Export Council is promoting dairy-based infant formula and gourmet ice cream. Kentucky Fried Chicken urges parents to reward their good students with a meal of fried chicken and fries.

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